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Checking a check station on opening day: Illinois’ firearm deer season

John Branz checking in his biggest buck Friday, opening day of Illinois' first firearm deer season, at the Livingston County check station.
Credit: Dale Bowman

PONTIAC, Ill.–My guy Friday was Bryan Davis.

He had his daughter, Natalie, 12, along for her first time with a gun deer hunting.

Illinois’ first firearm deer season opened Friday and runs through Sunday. The second firearm season is Nov. 30-Dec. 3.

As he checked in his deer at the Livingston County check station at the Pontiac Sportsman’s Club, Davis said, “I’m taking her back to school, then picking up my son.’’

Passing on the tradition.

Check stations used to be part of the deer-hunting tradition in Illinois. That changed with electronic reporting. Now check stations are only in counties with positive reports of chronic wasting disease (CWD).

It is a well-defined procedure for processing check-ins, More than 100 deer were expected by the 8 p.m. close for Livingston on opening day.

The deer’s sex and age (wear on teeth) were checked. Hunters were asked if they used a shotgun, handgun or muzzleloader, then if they saw any wild turkey (one hunter saw 22), bobcats or wild hogs. Successful hunters were given a deer pin.

District wildlife biologist John Griesbaum led a three-person crew. It was the second year for a check station in Livingston County, which has four hotspots for CWD.

Randy Smith, wetland wildlife program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, did data entry and map work, pinpointing where deer were shot.

Amy Bauman (right) pinpointing where her best buck was shot in Livingston County Friday on opening day of Illinois’s first firearm deer season; IDNR’s Randy Smith (left) recorded the data.
Credit: Dale Bowman

The “cutter’’ was Ed Zwicker, a regional wildlife biologist. With animals older than 1 1/2 years, the crew asked to take a sample for CWD testing. Those keeping trophies rarely allow sampling because the cuts high on the neck make mounting difficult, though the IDNR will work with taxidermists.

The biggest buck I saw brought in was a 12-point with good spread (width) and mass (thickness or heft), shot by John Branz of Lexington.

“I have a 10-point on the wall, but he pales in comparison compares to this guy,’’ Branz said.

Griesbaum discussed options so they could test Branz’s buck, including Branz bringing the head back after butchering and caping.

Even such big bucks were mostly 3-year-olds. By evening, Sarah Gass, 18, had the oldest deer, a doe older than 5.

Dean Wessels of Fairbury brought in one of the other big bucks, a 13-point. He wanted his trophy tested.

“These are the kind of deer they want to test, so I want to know,’’ he said.

He understood that old big bucks have the highest probability of CWD because of their roaming and contact with multiple deer.

In collecting data, Griesbaum led an efficient operation.

Zwicker cut the neck open to extract the retropharyngeal lymph node from below the jaw and the obex (base of brain). Those were put in numbered Formalin specimen containers for CWD testing.

Tongues were cut and put in numbered plastic bags for an ongoing genetics/CWD study by Nohra Mateus-Pinilla. All samples now go to the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at the University of Illinois for testing.

If a deer tests positive for CWD, the hunter is notified. It is recommended that deer testing positive for CWD not be eaten.

Statewide, opening day was relatively mellow with temperatures rising through the 40s; some rains came later. Some snow was forecast across northern counties on Saturday.

“It was lightning north of us,” Philip Kelly said as he checked in a deer while darkness settled on Pontiac Sportsman’s Club.